In many ways Cuba is not the type of Communist country I am used to. I have traveled in the Soviet Union before the collapse and have visited various parts of the old Soviet empire both before and after the collapse.
Cuba is not colorless gray world we encountered in, say, East Germany. It is colorful and vibrant. The customs and immigration people are nice. In the Soviet Union and East Germany border guards gave you “the stare,” a cold, chilling and unsmiling appraisal of everyone coming in. In Cuba the female border guards wear very tight fitting uniforms with very short skirts. They kind of flirt with you when you step into the booth by yourself. They smile and welcome you to Cuba. They are, perhaps, the friendliest border guards I have met save those from Georgia who used to hand you a bottle of wine with your stamped passport. You go through customs each time you leave or return to the ship. Our first day we were off and on three times.
Cuba is very health conscious. They scan your forehead with infrared scanners to take your temperature. If it is above 37.2 in Havana or 37.5 in Cienfuegos you get referred to a doctor. It’s hot in Cienfuegos. They move you from the steamy pier into an air conditioned trailer. You walk through and cool off. Just before you leave you pass a camera, which is the scanner. A doctor in a white coat sits looking at the screen. If anyone had a red glow on the forehead they are pulled aside for further screening. I am curious so the doctor pulls me aside and shows me how it works before I go on my way. He speaks English and I get the feeling we are having a real p2p experience.
But there are some things about communism that are the same in Cuba and Eastern Europe. There is a lack of initiative among state employees. We learned this at lunch.
As we got off the ship we could choose one of 5 p2p excursions. A cooperative farm, the old fort, an artists’ co-op, the botanical garden or a cigar factory. In addition to the special excursion we were supposed to get the normal walking tour of Cienfuegos and attend a concert at the Art Nouveau “Thomas Terry” theater. I have been looking forward to this. I like both choral music and Art Nouveau. The town was founded by French planters driven out of Haiti by the slave revolt. They built the city at the beginning of the 19th century and rebuilt it in the Art Nouveau style at the end of the same century, moving it into the Art Deco as the 20th century progressed. I particularly wanted to see the Cathedral’s stained glass windows.
But first the cooperative farm; this farm is one of several units of a larger cooperative and it’s specialized tasks are inseminating cows, which are moved to another farm to give birth. This farm also makes organic cheese. We have a chance to taste the cheese, watch it being made. Some people turned down the chance to watch cheese making to go horseback riding on wooden saddles. Our guide is the farm manager, who claims he has managed the farm for 50 years. He has a weathered face, a straw cowboy hat and wears spurs on his boots. Our tour guide says he’s beyond retirement age but refuses to let go. He certainly enjoys showing the farm to a bunch of gringos.
I watched a group of men re-thatch a barn roof. All the official product of this cluster of cooperative farms goes to the “ration stores.” However, every family seems to have its own goats, pigs or cows that they raise to provide food for themselves and to sell in farmer’s markets. There is little incentive to increase production of “official” output that is available at the ration stores at an affordable price (one tour guide admitted that the ration store, which is supposed to provide everyone’s basic calorie needs at a low price, actually can feed you for only about 12 days a month.) Farmer’s markets seem to be getting much of the produce.